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Signs of the Time: Hal Colliver's Sign Collection

Sign collection in Iowa boasts signs of nearly every kind.

| March 2016

  • Internal lighting makes these signs glow at dusk.
    Photo by Leslie C. McManus
  • Signs from highways and airports, the King Ranch in Texas and the Central Cafe in Keota, Iowa, are displayed cheek-to-jowl on this old barn.
    Photo by Leslie C. McManus
  • Hal Colliver, with a fraction of his collection.
    Photo by Leslie C. McManus
  • Vortex ethyl sold for 24.9 cents a gallon at Hoosier Pete’s.
    Photo by Leslie C. McManus
  • The view from the road. Hal Colliver has created a jaw-dropping display of wall signs and pedestal signs at his rural Iowa home.
    Photo by Leslie C. McManus
  • A tiny portion of the signs displayed in Hal’s bar. Old, original neon signs are typically the most expensive, followed by porcelain signs.
    Photo by Leslie C. McManus
  • Electric signs and pumps begin to glow at dusk. This barn remains pristine: It is adorned with nothing more than a barn quilt and a sign reading “West Chester South.” Hal’s place is just south of West Chester, Iowa.
    Photo by Leslie C. McManus
  • Hal’s collection has few boundaries. Here, older signs rub shoulder with comparatively new pieces.
    Photo by Leslie C. McManus
  • Antique pumps and a now rare “Phone from car” sign at dusk.
    Photo by Leslie C. McManus

We’re blowing down the road, headed to Hal Colliver’s place southwest of Iowa City to look at his sign collection. The GPS is chattering and I’m consulting notes I’ve made on Hal’s address. When I look up, it’s pretty clear we’ve reached our destination. An old saying comes to mind: You can’t miss it.

Like spendy hotcakes

When it comes to signs, as any knowledgeable collector knows, it’s not really necessary to qualify “antique” with “collectible.” These days, any old sign is hot. Doesn’t matter what it’s made of, doesn’t matter what category it falls into, doesn’t matter whether it’s in good shape. Signs sell like hotcakes – spendy hotcakes.

“They’re very high-priced these days,” Hal says. “They’re completely out of sight. It’s not about what the sign is worth; it’s about what you want to give for it.” Hal is the enviable guy who got to the party early. “I guess I started collecting 50 years ago,” he says. “I was a truck driver and I’d see billboards. I never went by a billboard I didn’t read.”

Then a buddy who worked as a county road maintainer gave him a sign declaring, “Enter at own risk.” Prophetic words, those. Hal became a sign collector and never looked back. I ask how many signs he has; I don’t get much of an answer. The more I look around, I realize the question is akin to asking how many stars shine overhead.

All on display

Porcelain, neon, wood, tin, plastic and glass. Soda, petroleum, oil, beer, businesses. Livestock breeds, ice cream, tobacco and taverns. Feed & seed, restaurants, tires, batteries. Political, municipal and just plain directional: No sign is turned away from Hal’s collection. “Once in a while I end up with a duplicate,” he says. “I sell those, but that doesn’t happen much anymore.”

The signs are not hidden away. Clearly visible from the road, they draw in passing drivers. “People pull in and gawk,” Hal says. “I have them sign my guestbook. We even had a TV crew from Brazil here one time.”


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